Updated: Nov 15
Pictured - Sonic Youth (Monica Dee Portrait 1987)
Alternative music has always been about challenging conventions and pushing boundaries. From its early beginnings as a rebellious offshoot of mainstream rock to the diverse array of sounds and styles that it encompasses today, alternative music has always been centered around innovation and experimentation, apart from striding for simply airplay or chart success. The albums on this list have all stood the test of time and each have a unique legacy built around them. Although ranking these albums was no easy task (yet a very fun task), our criteria includes albums that are considered alternative rock, college-rock, new wave, post-punk, shoegaze, jangle-pop or indie. Additionally, what exactly “alternative music” is, will forever be a topic of contention. The general consensus among these albums is that they are considered alternative to listeners and publishers alike from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone. Albums primarily considered, Britpop, hardcore, grunge, punk-rock or metal have been excluded from the list as they fall into their own more uniquely defined category.
(Linked album titles will direct you to our reviews of the specific album)
If there was one album that could be credited most with kickstarting the golden age of indie rock in the early 90’s and into the 2000’s, it would have to be The Queen is Dead. Not only did this record play a massive role in popularizing indie rock to the masses, but it provided a more soulful and heartfelt side to guitar-centered jangle-pop becoming popular in the 80’s with bands like R.E.M. This record houses some of the best jangle-pop riffs of all time, alongside Morrisey’s most clever and humorous lyrics. Every song on this record is a sharply crafted collection of sounds branching out in many unique directions. This was The Smiths masterpiece, receiving universal critical acclaim and is often cited as one of the best albums of the 80’s and the city atop a hill for indie rock bands.
Adjacent to the side of indie rock pursued by The Smiths, behind the shadows lurks a darker and equally alluring side of indie expressed by the best band Boston has given the world. Doolittle mixed jangle-pop with dark lyrical matter and musical themes creating this alternative rock masterpiece. Tracks like Hey, embody light and mesmerizing guitar hooks, yet as soon as the song ends, the gates of Hell open up and the haunting Silver begins. Pixies are often praised for their dynamic changes, going from really loud, to really soft in an immediate fashion, a technique embraced today in the indie world, and even more so in the grunge world. Doolittle signifies the best alternative rock has to offer and launched the golden age of 90's alternative rock.
OK Computer was the alternative world's answer to Britpop as no album ever released by anyone had sounded anything like this album. This record was so incredibly different from almost anything being released out of the UK at a time when Britpop was dying in popularity. With top-tier production years ahead of its time, unusual guitar tunings and of course a whole bunch of dissonance and unnerving sounds, the legacy of OK Computer towers over every album released since 1997. It’s dark, but beautiful, it’s unsettling, but it’s soothing. Although some people seem to make a strange hobby out of hating Radiohead, one thing is for sure, there is more talent displayed in this 53-minute collection of sounds than many artists could hope to display in a whole career.
4. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground are often considered the first alternative rock band, coming on to the scene years before post-punk and new-wave began crafting the genre. This band is an anomaly; they were way ahead of their time and had a sound in the 60’s that was essentially absent from the music scene until the late 70’s. Their debut album with Nico is the crown jewel of early alternative rock, receiving universal retrospective praise. The album's use of experimentation and avant-garde themes laid the foundation for alternative music. Artists like David Bowie and Frank Zappa toyed with similar themes and are massive influences on alternative music, but it was The Velvet Underground that truly saw into the future.
5. Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division
A common theme among the albums on our list is an element of darkness, distinct from most mainstream rock and pop. Perhaps no band embodied darkness more so than Joy Division. Joy Division's debut was released less than a year before the tragic death of frontman Ian Curtis leaving the world to wonder, if their debut was so good (as was their 1980 & final release Closer), what else could Joy Division have given the world? Filled with his demons, Ian Curtis’s lyrical writing on this record can make your skin crawl. Curtis’s haunting vocals paired with Bernard Sumner's guitar playing is perhaps one of the most underrated combos in rock history. Tracks like She’s Lost Control and Shadowplay will go down in history as some of the best alternative rock songs of all time. We as listeners were fortunate enough to get New Order from the ashes of Joy Division, but it was Ian Curtis who brought that level of character that can’t be replaced. Unkown Pleasures is a true masterpiece and has aged fantastically.
6. Surfer Rosa - Pixies
Although Pixies fans have often debated which was better, the debut album Surfer Rosa, or the sophomore album Doolittle, one thing that we should all agree on is that they’re both earth-shattering records. Just as Doolittle will go down in history as one of the greatest alternative rock albums of all time, Surfer Rosa will as well. The debut album harnessed an immense amount of power from frontman Black Francis, yet it was guitarist Joey Santiago who truly was the secret weapon of the band. Songs like Where is My Mind introduce a guitar sound iconic with Pixies that was never really heard before in this fashion. Tracks like Oh My Golly and I’m Amazed have hypnotic and comical conversational banter between band members. Why did the band feel the need to include nonsensical chit-chat between members with no context? Who knows, that’s Pixies.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was the premiere indie album of the 90’s. Although the record was released with a whisper, its greatness and legacy have come to light in the years since. A perfect album filled with psychedelic themes of domestic abuse, child fantasies, religious fervor and historical reflections, the album has a unique mysticism to it but even more so a life to it. Each song is beautiful, and the collection of songs feels more like a poem than an album. When you look back on all of the indie albums of the 90’s and the 2000’s, nothing really quite compares to this one. But just like that, Neutral Milk Hotel rode off into the sunset shortly after the release, turning frontman Jeff Mangum into more of a myth than a man. There was no album like this before and there never will be again. Do yourself a favor if you're a fan of this record, dig deep on YouTube for the few live performances from the band in 1998, you won't be disappointed.
8. Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth
Daydream Nation is regarded as one of the greatest alternative rock albums of all time, and for good reason. The record was truly a game-changer for the genre, melding punk, avant-garde, and noise rock into a unique and highly influential sound. Its sprawling sonic landscapes and poetic lyrics captured the restless energy and creative spirit of the underground music scene of the time, inspiring a generation of alternative musicians to think outside the box and push the boundaries of what was possible. From the opening notes of "Teen Age Riot" to the feedback-drenched finale of "Eliminator Jr.", Daydream Nation still goes so hard today.
9. This Year’s Model - Elvis Costello & The Attractions’
Although Elvis Costello’s debut album made a serious impact in the post-punk and new-wave world (spoiler-alert, it’s on the list too) it was the sophomore release that defined the sound of new-wave drenched alternative music in the late 1970’s. The record was a tour de force of punk energy, pop sensibility, and razor-sharp lyrics, showcasing Costello's incredible songwriting talent and The Attractions' tight musicianship. The album's 12 tracks are a masterclass in writing fun-loving yet angsty and powerful songs This Year's Model captured the frustration and alienation of the punk generation while also delivering pop hooks and melodies that made it accessible to a wider audience. It's an album that continues to resonate with fans and musicians alike and remains a shining example of what great music can be.
10. Slanted & Enchanted - Pavement
Released in 1992, Slanted and Enchanted was a lo-fi, indie masterpiece that blended garage rock, punk, and indie pop into a unique and alluring mesh of sounds. Its off-kilter melodies, classic Pavement cryptic monotone lyrics, and dissonant guitars captured the DIY spirit of the underground alternative music scene and inspired countless indie rock bands to follow in its wake. Slanted & Enchanted's legacy is felt in the music of bands like Guided by Voices, The Strokes, The Shins, and Animal Collective along with countless other indie rockers of today. It's an album that continues to inspire and delight fans with its raw energy and undeniable charm, leaving it among the best in alternative music.
12. Remain in Light - Talking Heads
14. Pretenders - The Pretenders
15. Loaded - The Velvet Underground
16. Let It Be - The Replacements
17. Closer - Joy Division
18. Psychocandy - The Jesus & Mary Chain
19. Automatic For The People - R.E.M
20. The Smiths - The Smiths
22. Power, Corruption & Lies - New Order
25. The Bends - Radiohead
26. Nothing’s Shocking - Jane’s Addiction
27. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground
28. Crazy Rhythms - The Feelies
29. Entertainment! - Gang of Four
30. Hounds of Love - Kate Bush
31. Screamadelica - Primal Scream
32. Pinkerton - Weezer
34. Funeral - Arcade Fire
36. Low Life - New Order
37. Murmur - R.E.M
38. Double Nickels on the Dime - Minutemen
39. Goo - Sonic Youth
40. Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
41. Siamese Dream - Smashing Pumpkins
42. Skylarking - XTC
45. To Bring You My Love - PJ Harvey
46. You Forgot It In People - Broken Social Scene
47. Zen Arcade - Hüsker Dü
48. Kid A - Radiohead
49. All Mod Cons - The Jam
50. Look Sharp! - Joe Jackson
51. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One - Yo La Tengo
52. Locust Abortion Technician - Butthole Surfers
54. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness - Smashing Pumpkins
55. Talking Heads: 77 - Talking Heads
56. Elephant - The White Stripes
57. Grace - Jeff Buckley
58. Metal Box - Public Image Ltd.
59. Sound Affects - The Jam
60. Pink Flag - Wire
61. Disintegration - The Cure
62. Return to Cookie Mountain - TV On The Radio
63. Last Splash - The Breeders
64. Violator - Depeche Mode
65. Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine
66. Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
67. Odelay - Beck
68. Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik - Red Hot Chili Peppers
69. Fever to Tell - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
70. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
71. Loveless - My Bloody Valentine
72. Drums & Wires - XTC
73. In the Flat Field - Bauhaus
74. Bee Thousand - Guided By Voices
75. Kaleidoscope - Siouxsie & the Banshees
76. Lust For Life - Iggy Pop
77. Kill the Moonlight - Spoon
78. Dig Me Out - Sleater-Kinney
79. White Light/White Heat - The Velvet Underground
80. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain - Pavement
83. 69 Love Songs - The Magnetic Fields
84. Transformer - Lou Reed
86. New Day Rising - Hüsker Dü
87. Dirty - Sonic Youth
88. Repeater - Fugazi
89. The Scream - Siouxsie & the Banshees
90. Soul Mining - The The
91. You’re Living All Over Me - Dinosaur Jr.
92. The Blue Album - Weezer
93. Music For the Masses - Depeche Mode
94. The Holy Bible - Manic Street Preachers
95. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning - Bright Eyes
96. My Aim Is True - Elvis Costello
98. Dear Science - TV On The Radio
99. Either/Or - Elliot Smith
For an expanded playlist including many artists on this list be sure to check out the accompanied playlist!